Tree's Roots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

People called him "Tree" because, even as a teenager, Mark McGwire stood tall and thick. Even then, he was hitting home runs farther than anyone in his hometown had ever seen.

The locals recall him playing for an American Legion team on a diamond at Claremont McKenna College. They aren't exaggerating when they say the 17-year-old could smack the ball into the next county.

"Mark would hit towering drives," said Jack Helber, his former Legion coach. "When they first went off the bat, they were so high I thought they would come down to the shortstop."

More than once, those moon shots sailed over the fence and across Claremont Boulevard, the boundary between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

"That would be the next county," Helber said. "We always talked about that."

At the time, no one in town dreamed McGwire would some day be on the doorstep of breaking Roger Maris' home run record. In retrospect, however, they aren't surprised by what the local boy has done.

"When you saw him play you'd think, 'Geez, this is a high school kid really pounding the ball,' " said Tom Carroll, his coach at Damien High in La Verne. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to see he was special."

Like everyone who watched him then, Carroll has his favorite McGwire stories.

Take the time Damien played at Ganesha High, just off the San Bernardino Freeway in Pomona. The field has a backstop, a couple of benches and not much more. In left, a chain-link fence shields a housing tract beyond.

"That fence has to be at least 320 feet and it's tall," Carroll said. "Mark hit a high shot into the wind. It went over the fence and hit the roof of a house on the other side."

No one recalled a home run clearing the fence before.

"The last time I saw the ball," Carroll said, "it was bouncing down the street."

Another time, Damien was playing an Elks tournament in Pomona. Two baseball diamonds lay back-to-back, sharing the same spacious outfield.

"He hit a bomb," said Steve Bast, a former teammate. "Everybody just stood there and said 'Wow.' "

The ball landed in the infield of the opposite diamond and rolled to the backstop. Bast, who later played with McGwire at USC and spent five years in the Boston Red Sox organization, calls it one of the longest shots he ever witnessed.

"Probably 600 or 700 feet on the roll," he said. "I honestly will never forget that."

Oddly--and it is part of the growing McGwire lore--the slugger was better known for pitching then. At 6 feet 5, he looked so intimidating on the mound, opposing batters whispered among themselves during warmups. They did not know McGwire as a gentle, quiet young man.

"Not a mean bone in his body," said Randy Robertson, a boyhood pal. "He was kind of shy, but he loved to laugh. We could tell him jokes and bust him up all the time."

His yearbook photograph shows a freckled face and bushy hair. A quote reads: "Life is like a roller coaster with its ups and downs, just sit back and enjoy the ride."

Years later, with reporters gathered around, he would say of the home run race: "Ride the wave. Enjoy it while it's happening."

Not that the game came easily to him. At Damien, McGwire briefly quit to play golf, helping the team to a league championship. He didn't make the varsity baseball squad until his junior year.

Even then, he had little else besides a 90-mph fastball and a work ethic. He threw extra pitches after practice. He groomed the mound with a rake and a hose the night before each start. There wasn't time left over for hitting.

"I cared about pitching," McGwire told the Associated Press. "That's all I wanted to do."

So he was undisciplined at the plate.

"In [junior varsity] ball, I struck him out four times in a game because I knew he would swing at anything," said Robertson, who played for Claremont High. "As long as I didn't throw him a strike, I was safe."

Still, his swing was naturally quick and compact. And if he connected, all that size produced concussive results. By his senior season, the coaches realized they had a slugger on their hands.

"We were so brilliant," Carroll said with a chuckle. "Actually, when he pitched, he would bat for himself and that was how we came to find out he could hit the ball."

Another turning point came after graduation, when McGwire took to the road with Helber's American Legion team. The Claremont Cardinals played games in Utah, Wyoming and Montana, traveling in a used school bus and sleeping some nights in campgrounds.

"We were playing every day and all of us were getting better," Robertson said. "Mark learned to lay off the sucker pitches."

McGwire also grew into his body--his legs had always been sturdy but now his shoulders broadened, his arms became stronger.

"When he took batting practice, it was a thing to watch," Helber said. "Everybody stopped. If you were shagging balls in the outfield, you backed up."

Although USC recruited him as a pitcher, it was obvious where McGwire's baseball future lay. Robertson, who became his college roommate, watched the continuing transformation.

"He was taking batting practice all the time and lifting weights," Robertson said. "He'd just sit on the couch watching TV and doing arm curls."

The prodigious shots continued. One homer flew over the center-field fence at USC, over a tall screen and into a nearby parking structure. Another ball smashed the windshield of a sports car parked outside the stadium. That was in McGwire's junior season, when he hit 32 home runs.

By then, "Tree" had become "Big Mac." His teammates switched the nameplate above his locker to "Big Check" before the 1984 amateur draft. Still, Robertson said, "you could never imagine him doing what he's doing now."

Back at Damien, a poster hangs on the wall of the main office, an action photo of McGwire after he was drafted by the Oakland Athletics. It is the only visible reminder of the school's most famous alumnus.

Mostly what remains are stories.

Carroll stands at home plate of the baseball diamond and recalls batting practice nearly two decades ago. McGwire hit a deep fly down the left-field line and the ball looked as if it might carry into the San Gabriel Mountains. It bounced off a gymnasium more than 500 feet away.

"Just a foul ball, but it was amazing," the coach said. "If I had known what he would become, I would have built a monument on the spot."

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